Just what exactly happened to the animals at the Buffalo Zoo during the Blizzard of ’77 has become one of those great stories that everyone seems to have some faded recollection of having heard before, but nobody knows for sure.
So, as you sit around waiting out a heavy snow squall in the warmest corner of the gin mill, everyone throws in details until a story emerges that is fanciful enough to have happened during one of the most fabled events in Buffalo’s history.
The real story might not live up to the craziest version concocted on Buffalo barstools over the last 40 years, but it’s still pretty fanciful.
Two days into the storm, on Sunday, Jan. 28, the giant 8-foot snow drifts that had blown up against their habitat allowed three Scandinavian Reindeer to easily traverse an area usually filled with fences and moats and make their way past the Delaware Park meadow, up towards Buffalo State College.
That’s about where one of the three 500-pound deer was hit with a tranquilizer gun. The excitement caused the others to scatter.
Word of the animals on the loose was broadcast, and good Samaritans helped triangulate the location of the deer, one of which was captured in a Buffalo backyard. The other was lassoed on a Village of Kenmore side street.
Not all the stories ended so happily.
Two sheep wandered out of their pen in the petting zoo. One was safely returned, the other apparently made it over a drift and was never found.
With doorways and paths enveloped in massive amounts of snow, in most instances, food and hay for animals were dropped in from roofs of buildings.
Despite zookeepers' doing the best they could, 16 birds — including two black swans — and seven mammals — including one of the escaped reindeer and an antelope — died as a result of the storm.
They didn’t starve, acting zoo director Terry Gladkowski told the media as the city was still cleaning up after the storm. It was mainly stress and the cold that killed the animals, many of which were initially caught outside and died later after being brought in from the cold and snow. He said the birds "just basically froze," and other animals couldn’t receive the daily medical care they needed.
The storm also caused about $420,000 damage to the zoo’s buildings and grounds.
There is a fictionalized version of life in the Buffalo Zoo during the blizzard, written in 1983 by Robert Bahr in the form of a children’s book. According to the New York Times Book Review, the basic plot of "Blizzard at the Zoo" is exactly what you might expect.
“Many of the animals romped and frisked, some stoically endured, and others, like the waterfowl, had to be rescued from freezing ponds.”